How The 49ers Can Get Back On Track (Realistically)

By Matthew Durgin

While the 49ers 2020 season was marred by injury, San Francisco needs to do a few things to get back on track for 2021. No, they aren’t going to be making many splash moves, but there are a few key decisions they need to make in order to get back to the level they were at in 2019.

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Creating More Cap Space

As of now, the team has $25,812,309 in cap space (per spotrac). They’ll be able to at least double that amount after restructuring a few contracts, which I will get to later. The cap is still undetermined for 2021, but we do know it’s not going up. I’ll be assuming it’s a flat cap (optimistic thinking) for these decisions.

Contracts to restructure to get more cap space:

Jimmy Garoppolo ($26,400,000 -> $10,000,000) = $16,400,000

Weston Richburg ($11,405,142 -> $6,000,000)= $5,405,142

Dee Ford ($20,785,000 million -> $10,000,000)= $10,785,000 

Saves $30,590,142

Releases:

Mark Nzeocha (1,600,000)

Saves $32,190,142

There’s a chance that Jimmy could get released or traded, but I’m going to assume he comes back. It’s almost a certainty that if he does return that he will be taking a pay cut, so I have the team saving about 16 million in restructuring his contract. This means that they’ll add a year or two to his contract, but the cap number will be smaller and the contract will still be easy to get out of. I fully expect them to bring in another quarterback because you can’t enter next season with someone like Beathard or Mullens as the only “competition”. With low trade value, there’s a solid chance Garoppolo will be back with the team.

Richburg has been a solid player when healthy, but his career may very well be over because of a patella injury that knocked him out of this season. I say he comes back, but first, they’ll restructure that contract.

As for Dee Ford, he’s been the biggest headache of them all for the franchise. There were rumors that he might be done playing football, but Shanahan shot it down. Where there’s smoke there’s fire. If he doesn’t retire, it’ll be tough to release him without taking on a lot of dead cap. So, I think he and the team will rework his contract so that it lowers his base salary for the season. He doesn’t have as much leverage as one would think because teams are unlikely to be rushing to sign him should he hit the open market. If they waited to cut him using a post June 1st designation, the 49ers would get to save a good chunk of money.

Finally, the team has to move on from Nzeocha. He’s been a solid special teamer for a few years, but hasn’t played much on defense and the Niners could find a guy to replace him for half the price.

Key players who will not be back:

  • Richard Sherman
  • Tevin Coleman
  • Jerrick McKinnon
  • Kendrick Bourne
  • Kerry Hyder Jr.
  • D.J. Jones
  • Jaquiski Tartt
  • Ahkello Witherspoon. 

A guy like Sherman understands the business as well as any player in the NFL. He wants to get paid and the 49ers don’t have the cap space to invest in a 32-year-old corner who missed most of the season with an injury. It’ll be an amicable split. 

Coleman, McKinnon, and Bourne don’t add any explosiveness to the offense and should not return unless it’s for close to the league minimum. They know the offense, but can be replaced by younger options. I think some teams out there will be interested in Bourne as a 3rd/4th receiver so he’s the most likely one to have suitors on the open market. 

In a crappy year, Kerry Hyder Jr. has been one of the bright spots. Because of this however, I think he has played himself into a contract the 49ers can’t afford. Honest question: would you pay a player who’ll be 30 at the start of next year and only been a reliable starter two of his six years in the league? I don’t want to diminish his season and he deserves to get a multi-year deal worth well over eight million a year, but in the 49ers situation, you have to be smart with your money. 

D.J. Jones is another guy who has played well when healthy but is far too injury prone for a guy who will want a new contract. Plus, Kevin Givens plays the same position and is probably equally as good for a fraction of the cost. 

The 49ers need a lot of help in the secondary, but a guy like Tartt, who can’t stay healthy, might not be in their long-term plans. He’s never played and finished a 16 game season and he will seek a contract similar to what Jimmie Ward got. Re-signing him would be a lot of money invested into a safety tandem that has zero combined Pro Bowl appearances. 

Priority Resignings:

  • Trent Williams (3 years/58 million)
  • Kyle Juszczyk (2 years/7.5 million)
  • Jeff Wilson (Second Round Tender, 1 year/approx 3 million)
  • Ben Garland (1 year/2 million)
  • K’Waun Williams (2 years/15 million)
  • Jason Verrett (1 year/7 million)

Signing Trent Williams is by far the most important move of the offseason. Even after not playing for the entire 2019 season, Williams is by far the best offensive lineman on the team and one of the game’s best left tackles. I would recommend backloading this deal to give the 49ers more flexibility for signings during the season, but I am confident that he will be back. 

Many fans, including myself, were confused by Juszczyk’s contract when he first signed with the team, but he’s such a vital part of the offense. In fact, he doesn’t play enough in my opinion. The fullback is a dying position though and it makes sense for both parties to reunite. It’ll be for less than his first deal, but still enough to make him the highest-paid fullback in the league. 

Mostert hasn’t shown he can be a bell-cow back. Having a guy like Wilson Jr. to be your #2 running back is a luxury. He’s a physical runner who can also catch passes. He’ll be in line for a big season in 2021.

Garland has done well in Richburg’s absence. Bring him back on the same deal he had this past season.

The secondary may very well see some new faces, but I think the team can realistically bring back Williams and Verrett. Williams is arguably the best slot corner in the league, but struggles when he plays on the outside. This will decrease his value on the open market a bit, allowing the 49ers to bring him back. Verrett will surely want a multi-year deal, but is any team willing to bite on a guy who has been injured for more games than he’s been healthy for? After spending some time on the open market, he accepts a contract that almost quadruples what he made in 2020 to stay with a team that gave him a much needed second chance. 

While he’s not a free agent, Fred Warner is another guy you need to re-sign ASAP. There’s a good chance that he will ask for at least $18 million (which is what Bobby Wagner, the highest-paid middle linebacker in the game, makes). The team should give him that without much discussion. He’s possibly the best linebacker in the league and is only 24 years old. When you plan for free agency this offseason, you have to take Warner’s massive payday into account.

Other re-signings to consider:

  • Ronald Blair
  • Solomon Thomas
  • Jordan Reed
  • Dion Jordan
  • Jordan Willis

All of these guys are the type of players who can provide decent depth. Blair and Thomas are both coming off of knee injuries and aren’t starters you can count on, but also aren’t the worst players to bring off of the bench. Reed can’t stay healthy but he’s a solid second tight end. Jordan and Willis have had flashes this season and should get a look next year as reclamation projects. Of course, the defensive line might see some shuffling depending on who the defensive coordinator is. 

Free agents who’d make sense

QB:
  • Tyrod Taylor
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick
WR:
  • Taylor Gabriel
  • John Ross
  • Phillip Dorsett
  • David Moore
  • Josh Reynolds
  • Cordarrelle Patterson (RB)
OL:
  • Alex Mack
  • Austin Blythe
  • Cam Robinson
  • Elijah Wilkinson
  • Forrest Lamp
DB:
  • Kevin King
  • Chidobe Awuzie
  • Gareon Conley
  • Blidi Wreh-Wilson
  • Dre Kirkpatrick
S:
  • Karl Joseph
  • Bradley McDougald
  • Daniel Sorenson
  • Damontae Kazee

I know none of these names inspire any confidence, but there are a few names I really think can be productive starters. Taylor and Fitzpatrick are both proven starters. If the 49ers want to roll with Garropolo as their guy for next year, they can provide some competition.

Gabriel has experience with Shanahan and is an upgrade over Trent Taylor. Alex Mack is another guy who played for Shanahan in Atlanta and was a pro bowler in 2016. If Richburg doesn’t return to the team next year, Mack, a California native, might want to finish his career on a contender and be willing to take a team-friendly contract.

Kevin King has played decently well for the Packers and the 49ers tried moving up for him in the 2017 draft. So we know that the organization thinks highly of him. If the team decides to pass on re-signing Verrett and wants to get younger in the secondary, 49ers fans should not be surprised. A King, Williams, and Mosely cornerback trio might not get the national recognition, but each of those guys provides a different skill set that would perfectly complement each other. Since I don’t expect Tartt to be back with the team, I would expect them to go with an under the radar type veteran player at safety. Tarvarius Moore and Jimmie Ward wouldn’t be a terrible duo at safety but the 49ers could bring in a guy who is stronger against the run as a box safety. 

The Matt’s Conundrum

Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan

The two Matt’s are trade candidates this offseason and will both naturally be connected to the 49ers for obvious reasons. Ryan, 35, had the best season of his career in Atlanta with Shanahan and the Falcons should be a rebuilding team. One would think that he’s on the block or that the Falcons will at least pick up phone calls about him. However, his cap hit and dead cap are over 40 million. Unless the 49ers unload a lot of younger talent for an aging quarterback, I don’t see this happening. It just doesn’t make sense.

Stafford, on the other hand is a legitimate candidate in my opinion. His cap hit is 33 million which is not that much higher than Garoppolo’s at the moment. Stafford, 32, has never been a part of a team that has a legit defense and a strong run game, something the 49ers have. If the team released Garppolo, who has no guaranteed salary in 2021, that would clear enough cap to acquire Stafford. Of course, we don’t know the direction the new Lions regime wants to go with, but they’re clearly rebuilding. Getting Stafford will cost a first-round pick and a few mid-round picks, but would be worth it. A few teams that have more cap space and draft assets will be in the mix. It will come down to if he’s actually on the block and which team will be the most aggressive in pursuing him.

Draft strategy

Looking at team needs, it’s likely the 12th pick will be a cornerback or quarterback. If they don’t acquire Matthew Stafford or Matt Ryan, I would expect the 49ers make an aggressive push to move up and pick a quarterback.

First, you have Justin Fields, who is by far the most proven and successful, but has trouble processing his reads which I think will turn off Shanahan. Next, you have Zach Wilson, the pick many of the faithful want. Wilson is a fun player to watch but didn’t do much until this year where he played a weaker schedule. Finally, there’s Trey Lance. Lance has the highest ceiling of the group, but needs time to develop. Ultimately, I think Lynch will like Wilson the most. He’s athletic, has a strong arm, and seems to have the mental make up ready to digest a complicated offense. Remember, Matt Ryan and Jimmy Garroppolo both said it took them well over a year to fully understand the playbook. Wilson could go anywhere from 2-5, so Lynch will have to make a very attractive offer. That likely means it will cost two first-round picks to go and get him.

If they decide to go for a defensive back, Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II and Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farely are both top ten players. Both have the size and athleticism needed to be impact starters off the bat and could finally give the 49ers a lockdown corner — something they haven’t had in decades. If the team wanted to improve the offensive line, Ohio State guard Wyatt Davis would be a solid selection. He is an All-Pro talent and would fit well in Shanahan’s system as a dominant run blocker.

Replacing Robert Saleh and whoever goes with him

Saleh will be getting a head coaching job this offseason and he absolutely deserves it. So who replaces him? Internally it has to be Linebackers coach Demeco Ryans. Ryans is an up and coming coach who many consider to be a head coach candidate one day. It seems like if Ryans doesn’t get promoted, he’ll follow Saleh and be his defensive coordinator. Another contender in all of this is former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn. He has a relationship with Shanahan from their days in Atlanta and he’s had a great history as a defensive coordinator. Other names to consider are Gus Bradley, who the 49ers wanted in 2017 when Shanahan was hired, and Raheem Morris, who might stay as Falcons head coach. If not, Morris is likely to become a coordinator elsewhere. 


Conclusion

The 49ers will be massively underestimated coming into the 2021 season, but the faithful should be optimistic. Assuming they aren’t the most injured team in the league again, they are a Super Bowl contender. The quarterback position will be a fascinating one, but the team needs to continue to fill out this roster with minimal to moderate cap space. Paraag is one of the best in the league at manipulating contracts to make them fit under the cap. The 49ers are also, in a better cap situation than most teams, so don’t think the 49ers have it worse than other contenders. 49ers fans shouldn’t expect many splash moves and should have a realistic approach. Trust the front office that has done a good job of rebuilding this team. Remember, the teams that often “win” the offseason aren’t the ones hoisting the Lombardi at the end of the year.

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